Sunday, April 24, 2011

What's New - Week of April 17, 2011

Happy Easter (if you celebrate) or happy Sunday (if you don’t) ... time for a brief update from my little piece of heaven.


This was another week of editing Lens Flare. A couple of interesting things I’ve noticed in my efforts that I thought I’d share.

First, since I wrote this during NaNoWriMo, I can clearly see how I just went full out writing without a lick of editing along the way. Sometimes, the typos (or inadvertent word substitutions) I’ve found make me laugh, if not confuse me. Using homophones for words I wanted to use is a typical mistake, but in other cases, I’m downright puzzled as to what I was trying to say when I wrote it - I mean the word comes out of left field. I usually find reading the paragraph aloud helps me figure out the right word (or words) to help it make sense. It still amuses me as I think to myself what stream of consciousness was I riding when that word popped onto that digital paper.

Second, and something that requires more work, are the plot flaws I mentioned last time. While I outlined this book in pretty extreme detail before I started writing it, I didn’t have it laid out paragraph by paragraph - nor do I think that’s the “right” way to do it, at least for me. But the two plot points that need adjusting are going to take me some time to resolve to my (and the reader’s) satisfaction. Not that this bothers me, mind you - it’s all part of the process.

Work-in-Progress Time: A Grand Delusion

Last year, some writer on Facebook ran a contest to find a guest author to contribute a story to an anthology he was penning. Contestants were given the first sentence and were expected to write a story from there. Here is the line:

Jake Everson woke up one day in St. Bart's and picked up the newspaper to discover he'd died that morning in Spain.

I didn’t think about the plot too much - another one of those where I just started writing - and landed on a drama about two rivals, one of whom took their rivalry way too far. Originally, I called the story “An Interesting Exchange,” but after I was chosen as one of three finalists, the author and his editor asked me to find a different title, so I came up with “A Grand Delusion.”

While my story wasn’t chosen for the anthology, I liked it so much that I decided to write a screenplay based on it (with the same title). It’s an interesting change writing a screenplay based on one of my short stories. For one thing, I have so much of it written already, at least for a first draft. I think the story has enough surprises and plot to give the whole drama enough “legs” to make it a feature film.

Ideas - Where Do They Come From?

So as you’ve seen in my blog posts, ideas don’t typically have a single point of origin, at least for me. Sometimes they can be a single line, as with “A Grand Delusion.” Other times, it’s just a title that triggers an entire plot. Other places I’ve gotten ideas from:

  • Overheard comments
  • News headlines
  • Tweets
  • “What if” questions
  • Dreams (mine or from others)
  • Daydreams
  • Myths
  • Song lyrics
  • Human interest pieces
  • Science articles
  • Other stories, movies or books (without plagiarizing, of course!)
Really, getting ideas isn’t the problem, if there is one. The bigger challenge is having enough time in a normal lifespan to be able to finish the writing all that these ideas demand. I have an idea bank right now that would keep me writing well into my hundreds and that’s if I stop coming up with new ideas today. As noted in a previous post, however, the ideas never stop and sometimes I have to pause to capture the hot thought of the moment so I don’t lose it. May it always be this way!

Word Count vs. Clock

Discipline is one of the biggest challenges writers have to master. We all lament there aren’t enough hours in the day, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, we’d have to admit we fritter away many hours every week that could be invested in writing (or editing, marketing, querying, etc.). Every time you turn around, there’s another article about what’s the best way to achieve that discipline.

There’s one school of thought that swears by the word count method - write until your word count for the day is met, then you’re free to do other things (presumably writing-related things, but they never say). Start small, they say, then increase the word count until you get to a number that you’re comfortable with and more importantly, that you know you can do without burning yourself out. After all, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon (unless you’d doing ScriptFrenzy or NaNoWriMo, then it’s definitely a sprint!).

Then there’s the other school that swears that the clock method is the only way to go. Take a kitchen timer (or the timer function on your smart phone, your pick), set it for a duration, then write until the alarm goes off. Move on to another task - editing another piece, let’s say, or reward yourself somehow - then set the timer for another session and so on. The idea is to write without stopping to edit or puzzle over a particular word or phrase, but rather to muscle through and save the editing for the period designated for editing, and in this way, get as much down on paper as possible within the time constraints.

I’ve actually employed both of these methods, depending on my mood and circumstances. However, I also use another method. Simply put, I lay out what I want to get done for the day - write a chapter, a number of scenes, a first draft of a story - and keep my head down until I achieve that goal. I typically note the time I start and end so I have an idea as to my speed in case I need to schedule specific slots of time for subsequent chapters, scenes or drafts. But that’s just me - your mileage may vary - but consider the task list method.

Finding what works best for you is probably one of the most important things a writer should strive to discover in order to be successful. You may not know until you experiment over several months (or years) or you may evolve from one way to another over time. Remember, your methods for writing can be as unique as your voice. No matter what you do, just keep writing!


Someone recently asked me what contests I think are most worthwhile. The short story contests sponsored by Writer’s Digest, The Writer or other writer-oriented publications (on- or off-line) are all valuable venues to help showcase your work and get your name out there. On the screenplay side, there’s Scriptapalooza or BlueCat (or contests sponsored by screenplay-oriented magazines, both on- and off-line). I recommend you do your research before you enter anything, however - go with a legitimate organization that has a reputation of actually awarding prizes instead of just advertising that they will.

No matter which contests you enter, they’re worth the price of admission, so to speak - the entry fee is nominal - because even if you don’t win, you’ll have the opportunity to have someone else read your work and depending on the contest, you could get objective feedback from a professional. If you’re worried about rejection, there’s only one piece of advice I can give you: get over it. Unless you’re one of the superstars of the publication world, you’re going to get rejected much more frequently than you’ll hear “yes” over the course of your writing career. It’s all part of the learning process, no matter what feedback you get. Don’t let the fear of failure - or success - get in your way of being a writer!

Next Time

Topics for my next post:

  • Complete my description of my works-in-progress
  • Right brain stimulation
  • The period controversy
Until then, have a great week!


Sunday, April 17, 2011

What's New - Week of April 10, 2011

Sunday night and it’s blogging time. The content of this one is a bit different than originally planned.


More editing of Lens Flare this week, where I spent most of my writing time this week. As I go through, I’m using Scrivener’s highlighting tools to call out weak plot points and other concerns so as not to interrupt the flow of the editing process. With me, just like with writing, I get into a rhythm with editing and don’t like to pause to research or puzzle over a flaw in the storyline ... rather, I’d much prefer calling it out in with a quick highlight and note about what’s bugging about that particular area and continue on. Anyway, I’m pleased that I’m still enjoying the story and the moment I’m accumulating here will get me past the place I stopped at without holding me back.

I mentioned last time that occasionally, a story just starts forming in my head and I have to take a time out to write up what’s distracting me to get it out of the way. It could be as simple as a single line of dialog or an observation. This week, quite out of the blue, the beginnings of a short story crept out from my subconscious and as I wrote it down, I was surprised to see how fully-formed it was words just tumbled out of my brain. Here it is, in its entirety:
I first met Henry Dimple in the fall of 1921, a man of difficult temperament and an apparent lack of cultural breeding of any sort. One afternoon, I wandered into Morey's Deli over on East 53rd and seated myself at the rear table, my back facing the rest of the patrons. I only desired one thing that afternoon and that was a private place where I could collect my thoughts and have a bite to eat. As luck would have it, the bistro wasn't particular crowded and within a few moments of my arrival, a red-headed waitress, two pencils stuck in her beehive hairdo, hurried over and in an exasperated voice, asked me what I wanted to eat.

"Just a bowl of chicken noodle soup, my dear," I replied pleasantly enough.

She scribbled my order down on her pad and walked apace behind the counter to add my request to the queue. I watched her for a moment or two more, then turned my attention to the daily newspaper someone kindly left behind.

Less than a minute later, as I browsed the business section of the paper, a gentleman sitting behind me leaned over to me and grunted, "Hey, are you done with that yet?" and pointed at the newspaper in my hands.

I chose to ignore him and kept reading, hoping my frank rudeness would send him away. Instead, he stared, his beady brown eyes boring holes into the back of my head and no doubt at the same headlines I was reading. To say the matter was unsettling would be underestimating my pique.

"May I help you?" I said, turning sharply and glaring with what I hoped would be sufficient menace.

If the cad felt any remorse about barging in on a stranger's personal space, he didn't give any evidence of it. Instead, he reached out and touched the corner of the paper and waited for me to react. I didn't disappoint him.

"See here," I exclaimed, withdrawing the newspaper from his grasp. "Would you be mind enough to leave me to my affairs? How would you like it if I just reached over and touched your coffee cup over there?"

I pointed at the cup for effect, then turned around to begin reading again. The waitress stopped at my table to leave a glass of water, then scurried off to wait on some new arrivals. I took a moment to get a good look at my tormentor under the guise of watching the waitress. Just as I expected, he fit the image of a common criminal: sunken eyes, weak chin, nervous twitch in the corner of his mouth.

"Are you done with that paper yet?" he asked again, a rising urgency in his voice. Persistence walked closely with this man.

I have no clue where this came from, mind you. The name “Henry Dimple” - say what now??? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I mean, this isn’t my style of writing by any stretch, but I’m just happy to be the conduit in this case. I haven’t been reading any older short fiction as of late, so i’m wondering what the source was. Another thing I’m wondering is where will this story go from here. Right now, It’s best to leave this one to simmer for a while (perhaps indefinitely).

Besides these beginnings of a story, two other ideas, both taken from news, popped in my head. Both of them have potential as great screenplays - one is a sci-fi morality play and the other is a tale of justice long denied. I don’t want to go into more detail than this, but the lesson here is ideas can come from anywhere, so it pays to keep your eyes and ears open. In cases like this, I don’t do anything more than snapshot the related web page and write up a 1-3 sentence paragraph so I remember what this was about later.

Another Work-in-Progress

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago a short story that I wrote and needs editing called “Breathe.” I wrote this several months ago over a couple month period. It’s a retrospective by one man on his life as a teenager and how a single mistake had such far-reaching consequences and affected him so profoundly that he really never was able to recover. The theme here is universal: a single decision can have an unexpected (and undesired) impact.

The story begins like this:
At sixteen, I could swim like an Olympian. This didn't happen as a result of some cosmic accident of genetic predisposition or preternatural talent passed on to me by ancient aquatic ancestors. My grandparents beached themselves on New York's gentle shores under the watchful gaze of Lady Liberty and her offer of welcome that so many immigrants took quite literally. While the roads weren't paved with the promised gold of prosperity, their new lives turned out better than they expected their future would if they stayed in those Mediterranean fishing villages. From my grandparents’ time to my own, the inevitable march of familial sprawl swept us onto the jungle green grass of the suburbs and all that particular nirvana offered.
I may want to hold off publishing this on my blog, but instead submit this as a content entry sometime in the future.

The Trick of Aphorisms for Writers

Or if you prefer, shorthand guidance for beginning writers and how it’s somewhat misleading.

You’ve heard it all before:
  • Show, don’t tell
  • Never use adverbs
  • Limit adjectives
  • Never start a story with dialog
  • Never use variances on the infinitive “to be”
  • Use a more common word rather than a more “fancy” one when you can
  • Don’t end a sentence with a preposition
  • Etc.
With such strict “rules” (as they seem to be), it’s a wonder that anyone writes at all. Think about it: we have all these lovely words in English at our disposal and we’re told not to use about half of them!

Okay, perhaps it’s not so bad. The aforementioned writer friend (the crap-cutter from the previous post) seemed to be a slave to these aphorisms, God love him, so when he pulled out his red pen to edit a peer’s work, he’d slash and burn following the above guidance, often turning the piece into a sea of blood. When I would ask him what the story was about he had edited so liberally, he couldn’t answer: simply put, he was so intent on finding fault based on the above rules that he failed to read the story!

It’s easy to fall into the trap of no longer remembering how to read for content once you’ve written (and critiqued) a lot of work. The other other trap is to treat the above guidelines as hard and fast rules. I used to have a T-shirt that read: “Rule #1: there are no rules.” Perhaps that’s a bit too nihilistic. How about “There are exceptions to every rule” or “Rules are meant to be broken?”

So when do you break the rules then? It’s probably wise to read many works by your favorite authors - preferably those who’ve been published in the last 10 years or so - to see what the trends are in popular fiction (presuming you’re writing fiction ... if not, then you have a whole bunch of other rules I can’t help you with ... see what I did there with the preposition?). If you see the so-called rules being broken by these authors, then it’s safe to say you can do under similar circumstances in moderation and judiciously. After all, writing is all about communicating without boring your reader to death and if writing is stilt, yet conforming with all the rules, then you’ve failed, plain and simple.

More importantly: don’t forget how to ENJOY reading.

Next Time

Here are a few topics for next post (repeated from last time):
  • Continuing discussion on my works-in-progress
  • Where do ideas come from
  • Contests
Until then, have a great week!


Sunday, April 10, 2011

What's New - Week of April 3, 2011

It’s Sunday night and time to wrap up the week that was.


Another week of editing (mostly), again spending time going through Lens Flare. After being away from it for a couple of years now, I’m surprised to find out a couple of things: the story keeps my interest and I have quite a bit of work ahead of me to fill in some of the descriptive prose that is normally left out of short stories. While a novelist has a lot of room to expand on the details that address the senses, a short story writer, at least in the modern iteration of one, doesn’t have that luxury. I remember when I first started writing short stories, another writer with whom I became friends kept on me about cutting out the “crap” and leaving only what was needed to carry the narrative to its conclusion.

Well, that’s all fine and dandy if you’re only writing short stories, but when you get to your novel, that kind of approach doesn’t usually cut it. Sure, it’s definitely worthwhile to keep your narrative lean no matter what you write, there’s something to be said about describing the scene, the people, the backstory and all the rest that makes a novel truly readable. And frankly, with short stories for publication, one is typically limited to a specific word count limit, while with a 150,000-word novel, you aren’t so constrained by word count alone.

Another Work-in-Progress

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’m writing a short story called “My Life as a Serial Hostage.” This story, like many of those I’ve written or have at least outlined, came to me out of the blue. I can’t say exactly where I was or what I was doing when the title popped into my head, but when I fired up my computer and began typing in Evernote (not “Evernotes," as I mistyped last time), the following came out in a flood:

First, let me make one thing clear: despite popular opinion as expressed in the press as of late, I have never put myself in a situation to become a hostage. Never, even once. No one seems to believe that some people attract certain kinds of disasters and exclusively those. I can drive eighty miles an hour the wrong way down a busy city street and maybe walk away with a minor fender-bender. However, put me into a public place that is a likely target for criminals to hold innocent people for large sums of money, and there you'd be likely to find me. It is my personal albatross, something I came to terms with a long time ago. No one seems to understand that.

As I continued writing, I discovered the story “had legs” and I could really make something of it. Many ideas aren’t like that, at least write away. I don’t throw out my ideas, but on rare occasions I put them on the back burner, sometimes indefinitely, but always with the hope that I’ll return to them someday.

Anyway, this story is going to be a bit of a humorous piece, despite the rather ominous title. I look forward to finishing it and perhaps publishing it on Facebook or my blog.


Every writer has his or her own preferred method for writing and for those who outline like myself, they usually are particular about how they approach. I’m a total outliner and have been since, oh, forever. I think in outlines; it helps my brain sort through the morass and sheer volume of “stuff” that crisscrosses my synapses all the time. I learned a long time ago not to shut off the spigot, but rather to get to some sort of writing device right away and outline the hell out of whatever idea pops into my head at the moment. Sometimes I get distracted from a current work-in-progress for this new one. Some authors call it getting pulled into the rabbit hole (or some such thing). I don’t know, but it seems to be a waste if I don’t jump on the idea of the moment.

So how do I do it? I pretty much have it down to a science, though it differs depending on the type of work it is. Here’s how I do it for screenplays:

  • Original idea in 1-3 sentences.
  • A single paragraph expanding on the original idea
  • 3-5 paragraphs, expanding on the single paragraph (one for each act)
  • Scene descriptions - one bullet point for each scene with 1-3 (short) sentences for each
At this point, I have enough of an outline - then it’s time to fire up Scrivener and move all that into its structure (though sometimes I’ll go directly to Final Draft and use its tools to do the same thing). I like working with virtual index cards and both applications have those in their toolkit. Once I populate the index cards, I’m ready to expand upon the details of the scene description, then begin to start writing the sluglines. After that’s completed, it’s time to start writing!

My approach to outlining novels is a bit more complicated than that (I’m usually using tables for those) and for short stories, it’s much simpler.

With all this outlining, it doesn’t mean I just don’t sit down and write something beginning to end without an outline - I’ve done that before, too. However, with an outline, I don’t have to worry about being pulled off a project and then come back to no idea how to continue.


Another form of outlining is mind-mapping and if you’ve never tried this, you ought to because it’s a great way to brainstorm. While you can do this by hand, I recommend MindGenius, the best tool for this I’ve found. Essentially, you start out with a central idea in a circle (or rectangle); from there, you draw lines to other circles (called “children”) where related ideas are written; and from there, you continue draw lines to even more circles for more related ideas.

The trick with mind-mapping is you don’t stop to edit, you just write/type. Turn the internal editor off and just get the ideas down as quick as they come to you. It’s both gratifying and surprisingly liberating to do this.

The thing about MindGenius is, unlike any other software out there, is that if you select a shape and start typing text, it automatically creates a new child idea (with its own line and circle). In this way, you can type ideas even more quickly because you don’t have to pause to click a mouse or type in a key sequence. I’ve written entire outlines to screenplays using MindGenius.

The down side about this software: it’s only written for the PC and I’ve recently confirmed with them (again) that they do not plan to write a version for the Mac. No worries, I have it on my PC laptop for when I need it.

The Other Brother - Why I Never Finished Writing It

I began writing this novel in 2002 and by 2004, I had completed 175,000 words and still had about 20% left to go. The story is about the strained relationship between two siblings and how ultimately, one of the siblings has to get past that estrangement to come to the aid of the other in a time of crisis. The problem is the story was based (in large part) on real life experiences and I wasn’t convinced at the time that I would want the story as written to see the light of day for fear of the backlash that I would receive.

Of course, I’m not planning on throwing out the manuscript, either, so I’m sitting on an incomplete novel that may or may not be worth publishing someday. That is what you call a quandary, gentle readers. And so, for now at least, The Other Brother sits languishing on my hard drive, ready for the day I decide to pick it up again.


Next Time

Here are a few topics for next post:

  • Continuing discussion on my works-in-progress
  • Where do ideas come from
  • Contests
Until then, have a great week!


Sunday, April 3, 2011

What's New - Week of March 27, 2011

Here are updates for the week, as well as some comments and observations I wanted to share.


This was editing week, an exercise geared to reengaging me on trying to complete my first novel, Lens Flare. I have one other novel about 80% completed, but shelved that a few years ago (called The Other Brother, currently at 175,000 words), mainly because I knew it needs serious editing before I could feel comfortable penning the rest of the first draft. I wrote about 35,000 words of Lens Flare for NaNoWriMo a few years ago, but failed to meet the word count necessary by the end of November. From there, I put the manuscript to the side as ran into a plot challenge I couldn’t resolve. By editing what I have thus far, I reengage myself with the story and can reconnect with the plot points I’ve outlined, but have yet to draft into the manuscript.

Lens Flare is a novel of political intrigue, quite a departure from my screenwriting, which tends toward comedy almost exclusively. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but I will say that the theme is pretty timely in today’s climate in and around the Beltway - not to mention here in the Los Angeles area. In future blog posts, I’ll be sharing excerpts from the book to give a flavor of what’s to come. As for my timeline, I’d like to get the first draft completed by the end of the year. It will take me another three solid months of editing until I’m ready to engage an editor and a final polish will follow after that. How I plan to publish remains to be seen ... I’m tending toward self-publishing on for the Kindle right now, but it depends on whether I get interest from any publishers before I decide.

When a Title Defines the Storyline

Last week, one of my online friends expressed amusement over the title of one of my screenplays in draft called Skeeter Huggins, Rodeo Clown. Believe it or not, I came up with this title completely out of the blue several years ago (long before Paul Blart, Mall Cop hit the big screen). I don’t know where that title came from ... none of my notes from back then indicated what inspired me. Those same notes indicated some ideas for the plot, none of which survived the current storyline.

I’ve written many loglines for this script, but here’s the current one:

Tired of failing at everything, a former high school football star becomes a rodeo clown in order to win prize money and the respect of his estranged family.

Naturally, it’s a comedy and in my mind’s eye, it’s a great vehicle for Will Ferrell.

I have the entire scene breakdown written down, so the draft is progressing nicely. I hope to have a finished product by the end of August this year.

Tools of the Trade

Factoid #1: I use a Mac to write. Up until a couple of years ago, I was a PC-only kind of guy, but my wife needed a replacement Mac when hers crashed, so I decided to get a Macbook Pro when she got hers. Converted! However, I still use my PC for many other things.

Factoid #2: My favorite programs for writing are Evernotes (for capturing ideas on the go); Scrivener (for organizing and outlining everything I write); and Final Draft 8 (for the actual screenwriting itself).

Next Time

In my next blog, I’ll discuss one or two of my others works-in-progress; I’ll share my outlining technique, including a bit on mind-mapping; and I’ll reveal the real reason why I never finished The Other Brother.

Until then, have a great week!